New directions in bureaucratic change in Southeast Asia: Selected experiences

New directions in bureaucratic change in Southeast Asia: Selected experiences

Haque, M Shamsul

In this article, it is argued that under the newly emerging market-centered mode of governance, there has been a transition in the nature of bureaucratic change in Southeast Asia. More specifically, in most Southeast Asian countries, the directions of bureaucratic modernization have increasingly shifted towards the promarket objectives, roles, structures, norms, and beneficiaries of public bureaucracy. These new directions in bureaucratic change have certain critical implications for the overall bureaucracy in terms of its identity, commitment, and legitimacy. The article explains the major dimensions of this recent transition in bureaucratic change, examines the critical implications of this transition for public bureaucracy, and offers some suggestions to redress such critical consequences.


In the current epoch characterized by a worldwide promarket transition in the ideological, theoretical, and practical bases of governance, there has been a considerable shift in the nature of bureaucratic modernization pursued by various governments or regimes. This bureaucratic change not only includes the state-sponsored policies such as deregulation, privatization, and liberalization that affect the functional scope of the administrative system, it also encompasses the restructuring and reorientation of the whole public bureaucracy into a market-friendly institution based on principles such as managerialism, value-for-money, customer-orientedness, public– private partnership, and result-oriented management (Haque, 1996). In advanced industrial nations, the examples of such market-centered initiatives to transform public bureaucracy include Financial Management Initiative and Next Steps in the UK, Public Service 2000 in Canada, Financial Management Improvement Program in Australia, Renewal of the Public Service in France, Modernization Program for the Public Sector in Denmark, Program of Administrative Modernization in Greece, Fundamental Policy of Administrative Reform in Japan, and Major Options Plan in Portugal (OECD, 1993).

Similar bureaucratic transition has taken place in many developing countries. For instance, Southeast Asian countries have recently adopted various forms of bureaucratic change based on a market-centered approach under the contemporary promarket policy atmosphere (Halligan and Turner, 1995). In general, these recent changes in Southeast Asian bureaucracies have been introduced in the name of efficiency and innovation (Salleh, 1996). These bureaucratic reforms are being pursued under various government plans and programs, including the so-called Malaysia Incorporated Policy in Malaysia, PS21 (Public Service for the 21st Century) in Singapore, Panibagong Sigla 2000 (renewed vigor 2000) in the Philippines, and the Seventh National Development Plan in Thailand. Compared to the previous state-centered approach to bureaucratic reform in Southeast Asia, the contemporary business-like initiatives of bureaucratic change are quite unique and represent certain new directions in the basic nature of bureaucratic modernization. However, because of its recent origin, and perhaps, because of its market-friendly policy environment, the current trend in bureaucratic modernization in the region has not yet been studied or examined in a comprehensive and critical manner. In this regard, this paper attempts to explore these emerging new directions in bureaucratic change in Southeast Asia. It also examines the favorable and adverse implications of this current bureaucratic transition, especially, for the public service. However, it should be mentioned that the scope and intensity of such a market-oriented bureaucratic transition vary among Southeast Asian countries: with regard to this recent bureaucratic modernization, Malaysia, Singapore, and the Philippines have been more forthcoming than countries such as Brunei, Indonesia, Thailand, Laos, Myanmar, and Vietnam. This study is based on the selected experiences of promarket bureaucratic reforms introduced by these countries in recent years.


In general, bureaucratic change encompasses both the proactive transformation and reactive adaptation of bureaucracy (including its objectives, institutions, structures, norms, attitudes, and target groups), although the scope and intensity of this bureaucratic change may vary according to the needs, constraints, and opportunities arising from specific sociohistorical circumstances. In Southeast Asian countries, the colonial and postcolonial changes in bureaucracy were often reactive, incremental, and piecemeal in nature. However, as mentioned above, in line with the recent market-centered state policies adopted by these countries, there have been more proactive and extensive changes in bureaucracy encompassing its structural, normative, and attitudinal dimensions. In order to delineate such unique, distinguishing features of the current bureaucratic transformation in Southeast Asia, this section will examine the following recent trends in such transformation process: (a) a shift in the objectives and priorities of bureaucratic change, (b) an adjustment in the institutional measures of bureaucratic change, (c) a transition in the normative standards of bureaucratic change, (d) a flux in the attitudinal and structural focus of bureaucratic change, and (e) certain variation in the composition of beneficiaries targeted by bureaucratic change.

Shift in Objectives, Priorities, and Roles. Like most developing nations, the main thrust of previous bureaucratic reforms in Southeast Asian countries was to replace the colonial bureaucratic structure maintaining law and order by a more development-oriented bureaucracy that could accelerate socioeconomic progress, enhance nation-building, and ensure better living standards. In other words, the Southeast Asian regimes assigned essential developmental tasks to various government agencies constituting the state bureaucracy. For instance, in Malaysia and Singapore, the government had put greater emphasis on public bureaucracy to carry out responsibilities related to socioeconomic development but without inhibiting the private sector (Chee and Lee, 1994:164). Similar emphasis on nation-building and socioeconomic development could be found in the earlier bureaucratic reforms undertaken by Indonesia, Thailand, and the Philippines. Recently, however, most Southeast Asian countries have shifted the objectives of bureaucratic change from this overall socioeconomic development to more specific economic concerns such as growth and productivity. In the case of Malaysia, this microeconomic goal is becoming more significant than the macro-level societal development as the primary objective of bureaucratic reform. Similarly, in Singapore, the main objective of the recent reform initiatives such as PS21 is to ensure continual improvements in innovation, efficiency, and cost-effectiveness rather than the overall national development stipulated by the earlier reform measures.

In line with this shifting objectives, there has also been a restructuring of the priorities of bureaucratic change from local needs to international demands. Although in the past, the regimes in Southeast Asian countries adopted administrative changes that were not indifferent towards the significance of global market forces, their main priorities were to meet the local needs and demands related to health, education, infrastructure, industry, and agriculture. But more recently, under the market-oriented policy atmosphere, the priorities of bureaucratic modernization in these countries are the global market demands rather than the local needs and expectations. This shift in the priority of bureaucratic transformation towards the global market demands has taken place due to the newly emerging forces of globalization, including the expansion of transnational capital, revolutionary changes in information technology, worldwide dissemination of consumer culture through global media, liberalization of trade and foreign investment, changes in world order in favor of the capitalist market system, and pressure of international financial agencies on developing countries to respond to international market forces (see Haque, 1998; Salleh, 1996:1-10). These forces of globalization not only demand an increased role of the private sector, they also require the public sector to serve the needs of global market forces (Salleh, 1996:11).

Thus, the current priorities of bureaucratic change in countries such as Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, and Thailand are to meet the new demands of global market and to enable the administrative apparatus to face international competition. In the case of Singapore, referring to the PS21 initiative, it has been suggested that the emerging global market has brought about many changes, which must be addressed by the civil service in order to meet new demands and to make Singapore internationally competitive (see New Code, 1995; Halligan and Turner, 1995). With regard to this new direction in bureaucratic transition in Malaysia, Sarji (1996) suggests that the civil service “has to be more efficient and effective in this borderless world and highly-competitive global environment. We have civil servants serving both overseas and at home who are involved in this global experience. ”

Corresponding to these recent changes in the objectives and priorities of bureaucratic modernization in Southeast Asia, there has also been adjustment in the role of bureaucracy. Like other developing countries, Southeast Asian countries are discouraging the active role of public sector in socioeconomic development, encouraging the private sector to play the dominant role, and assigning public bureaucracy with a more supportive role to facilitate the activities of market forces.1 Even in Indonesia, where civil servants are strongly affiliated with the ruling Golkar party and considered as “servants of the state” (King, 1994:23), there is an increasing emphasis on the streamlining of bureaucracy or “debureaucratization”, the expansion of private sector initiatives, and a supportive role of bureaucracy in enhancing the efficiency and creativity of the business sector (Kristiadi, 1992:102; Salleh, 1996:30). In the case of Malaysia, previously, the state bureaucracy was apparently changed in the image of development administration, so that it could enhance socioeconomic development by implementing long-term economic plans and policies such as the Perspective Plan and the New Economic Policy (Omar, 1980:253-54). But today, the Malaysian government is engaged in pursuing a more business-oriented bureaucratic change, replacing the active developmental role of bureaucracy, and redefining its role as a facilitator of private sector activities (Salleh, 1992:35– 36). Similarly, in Brunei, the government has recently given more importance to the role of private sector in national development (Ibid., p.27).

In the case of Thailand, the emerging role of public bureaucracy is to facilitate promarket policies such as privatization and contracting out, and to deal with various activities related to the private sector such as business licensing, international trade, and fiscal monitoring (Aufrecht and Ractham, 1991:53). In other words, the recent bureaucratic change in Thailand is to assign bureaucracy with the role of a catalyst to facilitate economic development through private markets (Salleh, 1992:44). It has been mentioned that the Thai Civil Service is increasingly playing a supportive rather than active role. In this regard, Thai Prime Minister Chavalit Yongchaiyudh has recently urged the private sector to contribute more to efficiency, encouraged public bureaucracy to play a supportive rather than active role, and advised public servants to adjust themselves to be facilitators rather than leaders (Chavalit Plans, 1997:14). In Laos, the recent public sector reforms are to enhance the role of state bureaucracy to facilitate the expansion of a market-driven economy (Klauss, 1997). In the case of Vietnam, the current reforms are not only to restructure the public sector but also to ensure a greater role played by the private sector (World Bank, 1997). Similar changes in bureaucratic role–from an active agent of social change and nation-building to a facilitator of the market forces and promarket policies–are being pursued in the Philippines and Singapore (Halligan and Turner, 1995; New Code, 1995). In Singapore, such a facilitating role is emphasized in its recent government initiative known as PS21. In the case of the Philippines, the government is encouraging the private sector to play the dominant role even in programs related to the modernization of military. Recently, the Philippine government has taken a concrete initiative known as “Re-engineering the Bureaucracy for Better Governance”, which emphasizes a catalytic (steering) rather than active (rowing) role of public bureaucracy (see Sta. Ana, 1996).

Adjustment in Legal and Institutional Measures. In line with the above trends in the objectives, priorities, and roles of bureaucratic modernization in Southeast Asia, there has emerged a new set of institutional and legal measures in government bureaucracy. In the past, following the model of rational bureaucracy affiliated with Western liberal democracy, most Southeast Asian countries adopted various bureaucratic rules, procedures, and institutions to ensure the neutrality, accountability, fairness, and responsiveness of public bureaucracy. They also established various planning agencies and development institutions to formulate and implement the state– initiated development policies, programs, and projects. But more recently, these countries have introduced a different set of legal and institutional measures in order to facilitate the realization of promarket policies and expansion of market activities. For instance, in the Philippines, the Proclamation No.50 introduced by the former President Aquino highlights the importance of privatization; in Thailand, the Civil Service Act of 1992 endorses market-oriented changes such as the sub-contracting of state activities to the private sector; in Malaysia, the government has adopted the so-called Privatization Masterplan and Guidelines on Privatization that explain the objectives and mechanisms of privatization; and in Indonesia, the objectives of the National Commission of Administrative Reform are considerably influenced by market principles.

The examples of the newly emerging promarket government institutions include the Public Sector Divestment Committee in Singapore, the Steering Committee on Reduction in the Size of the Public Service in Malaysia, the Public and Private Sector Committee in Thailand, and the Committee on Privatization and the Asset Privatization Trust in the Philippines. It should be emphasized that although these recently established committees are engaged in reducing the size and role of state bureaucracy, especially through various forms of privatization, they represent an essential component of state bureaucracy itself. In addition, there have emerged new institutions that facilitate partnership between the public and private sectors. The Malaysian government, for instance, has established the Malaysia Incorporated Officials Committee as a consultative mechanism between the public and private sectors, and created the so-called Consultative Panels comprised of representatives from both the public and private sectors (Sarji, 1996:117).

There have also emerged market-oriented government organizations to promote trade and investment. The examples include the Centre for International Trade Expositions and Missions in the Philippines, the Malaysian External Trade Development Corporation in Malaysia, and the Export-Import Bank in Thailand (see Salleh, 1996:18-19). In addition, some Southeast Asian countries have recently introduced certain microorganizational techniques often used in the private sector. In Singapore, the government has adopted organizational techniques such as Work Improvement Teams, Service Quality Centre, Staff Suggestions Schemes, and Service Improvement Units in order to upgrade the level of quality and productivity in the public sector (Halligan and Turner, 1995; Quah, 1996). The Malaysian government has also adopted similar organizational techniques, including Total Quality Management and Quality Control Circles, with a view to improve the quality of civil service and the satisfaction of its customers (Commonwealth Secretariat, 1995:3; Sarji, 1993a:40). In short, unlike the traditional public institutions created for implementing state– centered policies and programs, the recent bureaucratic modernization has led to the establishment of a new set of government institutions that facilitate market-oriented policies and the adoption of business-sector management techniques in the public service.

Transition in Normative Standards. Following the aforementioned transition in the objectives, priorities, and institutional structures of bureaucratic modernization, there has been a corresponding shift in the normative preferences guiding this modernization process. It is well known that in general, the traditional reform efforts on bureaucracy tended to reinforce certain core values of the public service such as neutrality, impartiality, accountability, equity, representativeness, and justice, which are being replaced by or subordinated to market-oriented norms such as competition, efficiency, productivity, and profitability (Haque, 1996:190). In line with this global trend, there have been considerable adjustments in the normative preferences related to bureaucratic modernization in Southeast Asia. In the Philippines, for instance, the guiding norms of bureaucratic transformation since the Aquino administration have been various promarket principles such as efficiency, effectiveness, economy, productivity, service delivery, public-private partnership, market responsiveness, and economic growth (see Halligan and Turner, 1995:118-119; Mendoza, 1996:187). These normative principles are quite different from the principles of political neutrality, merit-based competition, and equal opportunity that guided the earlier bureaucratic reforms in this country. Similarly, in Thailand, the recent bureaucratic reforms adopted under the Civil Service Act of 1992, Seventh National Economic and Social Development Plan (1992-1996), and Eighth National Economic and Social Development Plan (1996-2001), are predominantly based on standards such as efficiency, effectiveness, and public-private partnership.

In the case of Indonesia, the Fifth Five Year Development Plan (1989/90– 1993/94) emphasized bureaucratic modernization for a higher level of efficiency, productivity, and effectiveness (Kristiadi, 1992:97). In Laos, the recent market-oriented reforms have been guided primarily by values such as efficiency and effectiveness (Klauss, 1997). In Brunei, the current government initiatives to assess public service performance and pursue administrative change also place a greater emphasis on the principles of efficiency and effectiveness (Salleh, 1996:27-28). In the case of Singapore, the government has introduced considerable bureaucratic reforms in areas such as personnel management and financial administration, and these reform measures emphasize business-sector norms such as efficiency, performance, cost-effectiveness, competition, and entrepreneurship (Lim, 1997; Halligan and Turner, 1995; Koh, 1997).

A comprehensive framework of this market-oriented normative shift in bureaucratic change can be found in Malaysia. Under the recent promarket ethos of the so-called Malaysia Incorporated, the principles of earlier bureaucratic reforms, including dedication, responsibility, neutrality, responsiveness, and ethnic representation, have been overshadowed by the emerging business-like standards such as productivity, quality, efficiency, cost-consciousness, and customer-orientedness (Chee and Lee, 1994; Government of Malaysia, 1994). This normative transition, which the Malaysian government considers a paradigmatic shift in public bureaucracy, is also reflected in the current civil service code of ethics that specifically highlights efficiency and effectiveness (Salleh, 1992:37). The promarket transition in the normative criteria of bureaucratic change in Malaysia and Singapore is also evident in the adoption of the aforementioned micro– organizational techniques (e.g. Total Quality Management, Service Quality Centre, and Service Improvement Unit) founded upon principles such as efficiency, productivity, and customer-orientedness (Halligan and Turner, 1995; Sarji, 1993a).

Flux in Attitudinal and Structural Focus. In relation to the above changes in the objectives, institutional patterns, and normative standards of bureaucratic reforms, there has also been a change in the kind of managerial attitudes and structures emphasized in such reforms. With regard to bureaucratic attitude, following the customer-oriented management behavior found in the business sector, many developing countries have become interested to pursue a business-like attitudinal transformation in public bureaucracy. These countries seem to be increasingly convinced to introduce this client-centered or customer-oriented approach to bureaucratic change, which has already been adopted by Western countries such as the U.S. and the U.K. in their administrative systems (Gore, 1993; Haque, 1996). In Southeast Asia, Malaysia has a concrete agenda for attitudinally transforming its public service into a customer-oriented institution. In addition, the Malaysian government has introduced the so-called Client Charter that requires public agencies to deliver quality services to their customers. In the Philippines, the government has introduced a campaign, known as Mamayayan Muna, Hindi Mamaya Na (the citizen now not later), which highlights the importance of prompt decision, management by courtesy, and clients’ satisfaction (Halligan and Turner, 1995:122). Similarly, in Singapore, one of the main objectives of launching the PS21 initiative and transforming government departments into Autonomous Agencies is to instill a customer-oriented outlook in public bureaucracy (Koh, 1997:1; Lim, 1996:38).

In terms of the shift in the structural focus of bureaucratic change, there is a growing tendency to emphasize decentralization and managerial autonomy in most Southeast Asian countries. For instance, the Philippine government has restructured public enterprise management towards further autonomy in activities related to personnel, finance, procurement, and production (World Bank, 1995:94-95). Both Malaysia and Singapore have decentralized their public personnel systems by transferring various personnel activities from the central personnel authorities to individual ministries or agencies (Meksawan et al., 1986; Quah, 1996). Recently, the Singapore government has transferred important personnel functions such as recruitment and promotion from the Public Service Commission to the personnel boards created at the inter-ministerial, ministerial, and departmental levels (Salleh, 1992:42). In the area of financial administration, the Malaysian government introduced the so-called Modified Budgeting System in 1990 in order to delegate decision-making authority to various ministries (Halligan and Turner, 1995:86). Similarly, in Singapore, various government departments, ranging from the Supreme Court to the Hawkers Departments, are being transformed into Autonomous Agencies in the image of “business organizations” to provide them with more autonomy in financial and personnel matters (Chuang, 1996; Koh, 1997). As Koh (1997:30) mentions, these newly adopted Autonomous Agencies in Singapore are government departments or statutory boards that have “taken on a new management style that is more like that of a private company.”

Similar tendencies toward managerial autonomy or decentralized management can be found in some of the recent changes related to other micro-level managerial issues. Although most Southeast Asian countries have not adopted any considerable change in certain management issues such as job classification (e.g. Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore still practice the rank-in-person principle emphasizing a person’s qualifications rather than job factors), there has been some transition in their performance appraisal and compensation systems. The Malaysian public service has introduced the New Remuneration System that is claimed to be more flexible than the previous system (Halligan and Turner, 1995; Meksawan et al., 1986). In Singapore, the use of market criteria to determine public sector salaries has become more specified or defined: the salary benchmarks for senior civil servants are now decided according to the incomes of top earners in the private sector professions such as banking, accounting, engineering, law, local manufacturing firms, and multinational corporations (Chuang, 1994:1). In Thailand, the government is gradually moving towards a similar approach to salary determination in the public sector based on its comparison with the private sector (see Tunsarawuth, 1994, 1995). In this regard, it has been felt that in Thailand, “the government would need to cut the current number of civil servants by a-third in the next 15 years in order that salaries and benefits of civil servants can be raised to match those in the private sector” (Tunsarawuth, 1996:17). With regard to performance appraisal, recently, Malaysia has adopted the New Performance Appraisal System based on principles such as openness in appraisal, specific work targets, and detailed weightage for evaluation criteria (Commonwealth Secretariat, 1995:17). Singapore, on the other hand, has introduced a more job-related appraisal system for higher and mid-level officers, who will work with their supervisors to “set, review and achieve job targets”, and these targets will “provide a framework to assess performance” (Osman, 1996:3).

In addition, the current bureaucratic reforms in Southeast Asia tend to emphasize structural openness to allow more lateral entry and more employee exchange between the public and private sectors in order to enhance innovation. In the Philippines, for instance, under the ethos of Panibagong Sigla 2000 (renewed vigor 2000), the government has a policy to facilitate the exchange of executives between the public and private sectors (Halligan and Turner, 1995:120). In Singapore, the government has opened top administrative positions (including the positions of deputy secretaries and permanent secretaries) to private-sector employees as long as they possess the required skills and qualifications. On the other hand, the Malaysian government has adopted the so-called Attachment Training Program under which government officers will be attached to private foreign (European, American, Japanese) companies, so that these officers can receive an exposure to business management, exchange views on business matters, and establish rapport with the private sector (Government of Malaysia, 1992:339; Sarji, 1993b:184). More recently, the Singapore government has started a similar scheme to attach public employees to foreign private firms to expose them to the activities of the private sector. This approach to bureaucratic transformation, which encourages such lateral entry and public-private personnel exchange, is quite unprecedented in both Singapore and Malaysia where these provisions hardly existed in the past (see Meksawan et al., 1986; Omar, 1980:263).

Variation in the Composition of Beneficiaries. The aforementioned changes in the objectives, institutional means, normative standards, and attitudinal focus of bureaucratic modernization in Southeast Asian countries also imply a considerable change in the composition of beneficiaries targeted by this modernization process. In the past, the officially stipulated beneficiaries of bureaucratic reforms in these countries covered all citizens irrespective of their class, gender, and ethnic identity. In general, the central concern of these reforms was to enhance the overall socioeconomic progress from which all members of society would benefit, although in reality, the gains from such reform efforts were often unequal among various social groups and classes. However, what is unique about the current promarket bureaucratic reforms is that their officially declared position itself considers “customers” rather than “citizens” as the primary beneficiaries of reforms. It indicates a significant shift in the nature of people-bureaucracy relationship: from one based on the mission of public bureaucracy to serve people as citizens irrespective of their economic capacity, to one based on its mission to serve mainly the customers who can pay, implying an emerging exchange relationship between the people and bureaucracy. This current transition in bureaucratic reforms in Southeast Asian countries–especially in terms of the changing composition of the beneficiaries of such reforms–is similar to the recent shift in public service reforms adopted by advanced capitalist nations such the U.S. and the U.K. where public bureaucracy is being corporatized in order to serve the people as “customers” rather than as “citizens”.

This idea of treating citizens as customers was introduced by Osborne and Gaebler in their book Reinventing Government: How the Entrepreneurial Spirit is Transforming the Public Sector (1992), and later, it was used by the US Vice President Al Gore in his report titled Creating Government That Works Better & Costs Less: Report of the National Performance Review (1993). Following this stance, and echoing the book of Hammer and Champy (Reengineering the Corporation), the Philippine government (the Department of Budget and Management) has introduced the so-called Re-engineering the Bureaucracy for Better Governance: Principles and Parameters (1995), which highlights a new mode of governance based on a catalytic (steering) role of state bureaucracy and an active role of the private sector to provide goods and services to customers (see Sta. Ana, 1996). In Malaysia, the word “customer” has become a central term in the process of recent bureaucratic transformation: the aim is to create a “business-friendly” public bureaucracy that facilitates a conducive business environment and meets the needs of customers (Sarji, 1996). Malaysia has also adopted the so-called Client’s Charter to upgrade the counter services for customers (Commonwealth Secretariat, 1995). Similarly, in Singapore, the main thrust of PS21 is to improve the quality of services provided by the public sector to its customers or clients. In addition, the Civil Service Corporate Statement introduced in 1995 requires that “all civil service organisations adopt a customer orientation and an attitude of service excellence” (Civil Service College, 1995:3).

This redefinition of the scope of beneficiaries covering mainly the customers, especially the members of business community, is also reflected in the deepening partnership between the public service and private firms. For instance, the Philippine government has established the Government Productivity Improvement Program Council not only to enhance the public– sector’s productivity but also to strengthen its partnership with the private sector in improving productivity (Mendoza, 1996). This government– business partnership in the Philippines is well reflected in the recently adopted policies–including contracting-out, Build-Operate-Transfer, Build– Own-Operate, Build-Lease-Transfer, and Rehabilitate-Own-Operate–that are in favor of the private sector (Halligan and Turner, 1995:124). Similar policy measures have also been introduced in Malaysia where public bureaucracy is being restructured not only to assist and interact with the private sector but also to establish partnership with business enterprises (Sarji, 1993a, 1993b, 1996). In Laos, the main trust of the current government reforms is to open the economy to private investors and encourage foreign investments (World Bank, 1996), which implies more benefits to the local and foreign private investors. In the case of Thailand, the Seventh National Economic and Social Development Plan not only suggests to reduce government supervision over public enterprises, it also encourages public-private joint operations (Halligan and Turner, 1995). Although this new direction in bureaucratic change serves the business interests (both local and foreign) based on public-private partnership, it is likely to be less favorable to the working class, especially, due to their declining wages and diminishing power to bargain (Chee and Lee, 1994).


After exploring the current trends or new directions in bureaucratic change in Southeast Asian countries, it is necessary to examine both the favorable and adverse implications of this emerging bureaucratic transition for the overall public bureaucracies in these countries. First, the current normative shift in bureaucratic change in Southeast Asia towards specific market values such as efficiency and productivity is likely to make the assessment of bureaucratic performance more conducive, because these normative standards are more tangible than the traditional public service norms such as fairness and justice. However, this market-based normative transition in bureaucratic reforms has also the potential for certain adverse outcomes. For instance, the adoption of business norms is likely to diminish the normative identity of public bureaucracy as a distinctly “public” institution (Haque, 1996), and thus, may exacerbate the problem of its identity crisis. Second, as the contemporary reformers attempt to transform public bureau-cracy in the image of the business sector, and as the difference between the two diminishes, it is likely that there may emerge a challenge to the motivation and morale of public servants. It is because, the job satisfaction of public servants depends not only on extrinsic rewards such as monetary compensation (which is often lower than that in the private sector) but also on intrinsic rewards such as their sense of pride from being public servants and doing something for the common public interest (Haque, 1996; Perry and Wise, 1990). In fact, the motivational problem in public bureaucracy caused by the recent market-centered bureaucratic reform and reorientation, has already become a serious problem in advanced industrial countries such as the U.S. and Japan, especially, in terms of difficulty in recruiting and retaining the committed professionals in public bureaucracy (see Pempel and Muramatsu, 1995; Volcker Commission, 1990). In this regard, Southeast Asian countries can rethink these current market-centered reforms and its motivational implications, and perhaps, they can learn from the critical experiences of industrialized countries (e.g. the U.K., the U.S., and Canada) that went through similar reform measures much earlier.

Finally, the current trends of bureaucratic modernization in Southeast Asia may create both positive and negative outcomes with regard to the legitimacy of public bureaucracy, implying the rise and fall of public confidence in bureaucratic activities and performance. More specifically, the business-like bureaucratic reforms based on the criteria of efficiency, productivity, decentralization, autonomy, and customer-orientation, may strengthen public confidence in state bureaucracy that used to claim very little public support in developing countries due to its alleged inefficiency, waste, centralization, irresponsiveness, and corruption. But there are certain potentially adverse implications of these market-centered changes in bureaucracy for its legitimacy. More specifically, these bureaucratic reforms may be strongly endorsed by their main beneficiaries, especially the local and foreign private firms gaining from public-private partnership and customer– oriented services, but these reforms may not be popular among the lowincome people who are likely to be worse off from these reforms that streamline welfare programs, encourage better services to customers who can pay, and show indifference towards the concerns of the poor.2 As a result, in the poorer Southeast Asian countries (e.g. Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand, Laos, and Vietnam), the common masses may not endorse these market-biased bureaucratic changes, and they may lose trust in this newly emerging pro-business bureaucracy. It implies a further deterioration of bureaucratic legitimacy.

More importantly, as the current administrative modernization tends to transform bureaucracy in the image of business management, and as bureaucracy increasingly resembles the business sector in terms of its objectives, roles, structures, and norms, the people may find very little difference between the profit-seeking private firms and the business-oriented public agencies. This may diminish people’s confidence in public bureaucracy as a distinct public institution that is expected to meet the needs and demands of the general public beyond the concerns of specific groups and classes affiliated with the private sector. This decline of people’s trust in bureaucracy implies a potential challenge to its overall legitimacy. In fact, there are already signs of such diminishing public confidence in bureaucracy in advanced capitalist countries that have recently adopted market-centered bureaucratic changes.3 This new legitimation challenge to bureaucracy posed by its recent promarket transition, has also been recognized in certain Southeast Asian countries. For instance, in the case of Malaysia, it has been suggested that the treatment of people as customers by public bureaucracy, as emphasized in the recent bureaucratic reforms, may diminish the “sense of connectedness” between public employees and the citizens (Zin, 1994:204– 205). In the case of Singapore, it has been observed that it might be necessary to introduce stronger behavioral safeguards and scrutiny measures for public bureaucracy due to its intensive interaction and partnership with the business sector resulting from the recent administrative changes (PS21 Lauded, 1995:2). This need for additional safeguards related to the emerging public-private partnership has also been recognized in the Malaysian case. According to Sarji (1993b:184), it is necessary to have a clear code of conduct in Malaysia “to prevent any erosion, however slight, of public confidence in the traditional impartiality of the Civil Service, especially in a world where the public and private sectors increasingly interact. ”

In order to address the aforementioned adverse implications of the recent bureaucratic changes in Southeast Asian countries, it is imperative for the top policy makers to take into account certain basic rules in pursuing bureaucratic modernization. They should take a more cautious and critical approach in adopting bureaucratic change based on market standards or business principles. More specifically, these policy makers must consider that the objectives, priorities, roles, structures, norms, and beneficiaries of public bureaucracy are quite different from those of the business sector,4 and these unique functional, structural, and normative features of public institutions should not be sacrificed even when certain market criteria are incorporated into the public sector. This more careful approach is likely to function as a remedy to some adverse outcomes created by the market– centered bureaucratic change discussed above. For instance, a cautious and critical approach to bureaucratic change–which recognizes the unique objectives, roles, structures, norms, and clienteles of the public sector-may help retain the public identity of public bureaucracy and maintain people’s confidence in its unique public (as opposed to business) character. Second, by recognizing and retaining the public identity of public bureaucracy, this cautious and critical approach to bureaucratic reform may also help reinforce the intrinsic sources of motivation among public employees in terms of their satisfaction from being identified with the common public interest rather than parochial business concern. Finally, since a cautious and critical approach to bureaucratic change would require public bureaucracy to be responsive to the needs of various groups and classes of people (not just the so-called customers), it might help strengthen the trust of the common public in bureaucracy, and thus, enhance its legitimacy as a public institution.

However, in adopting such a prudent approach to bureaucratic change, all Southeast Asian countries may not be equally effective. The past experience shows that while some of these countries, especially Malaysia and Singapore, have been quite effective in implementing various administrative reforms due to political stability and a relatively cooperative relationship between bureaucracy and political leadership, countries such as Indonesia, the Philippines, and Thailand have been less effective in realizing administrative changes due to the dominance of bureaucratic apparatus and the conflict between bureaucratic and political elites.5 In this regard, whether the experiences of effective administrative reforms pursued by countries such as Singapore should be followed by other Southeast Asian countries is a controversial question, because countries such as Indonesia, Laos, the Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam are considerably different from Singapore in terms of their social, economic, political, and ideological contexts. These contextual differences must be taken into account in reexamining the recent market-oriented bureaucratic change and undertaking any comprehensive reform measures.


In this paper, it is stressed that there has been a considerable shift in the nature and mode of bureaucratic modernization in Southeast Asian countries under the contemporary policy atmosphere influenced by a market– centered approach. In line with the current state policies such as deregulation, privatization, and liberalization, there have been adjustments in the objectives, priorities, roles, institutions, norms, attitudes, and beneficiaries of bureaucratic reforms in these countries. More specifically, in terms of objectives and priorities of the recent bureaucratic modernization in Southeast Asia, there has been a shift from traditional focus on the overall nation-building and socioeconomic progress to more specific economic concerns such as economic growth and productivity. With regard to bureaucratic role, the recent reforms have highlighted a supportive role rather than an active involvement of state bureaucracy in socioeconomic activities while encouraging the private sector to play a greater role in such activities. In terms of institutional or organizational measures, the recent bureaucratic change has introduced a new set of market-oriented organizations and techniques in the public sector–including the privatization committees, public-private partnership programs, and quality control circles– which are likely to strengthen and expand the private sector and market forces while diminishing the size and significance of public bureaucracy.

The normative criteria of the contemporary bureaucratic change in Southeast Asia are also in transition. For instance, the traditional normative principles of bureaucratic reform, including the principles of political neutrality, equal opportunity, public accountability, and representativeness, seem to have become less important than the market norms such as competition, profit, efficiency, and productivity. Similarly, there is a shift in bureaucratic modernization in terms of the choice of managerial structures, attitudes, and commitments: the transition is from a centralized to decentralized structure, from an impersonal to informal attitude, from a people-oriented to customer-oriented outlook. Finally, in most Southeast Asian countries, there is a change in bureaucratic modernization in terms of its target groups or beneficiaries (people who are supposed to benefit from such modernization). While the previous reform efforts for bureaucratic modernization aimed to benefit all citizens irrespective of their incomes, the current promarket framework of bureaucratic change emphasizes the needs and demands of the so-called “customers” who, by definition, have the capacity to pay for goods and services.

It has also been discussed that despite certain favorable outcomes of the market-oriented bureaucratic change in Southeast Asian countries, there are various adverse implications of this recent bureaucratic reform for the normative identity, motivational foundation, and legitimacy of public bureaucracy. It is suggested that the policy makers in these countries should adopt a more cautious and critical approach while introducing the promarket transformation of bureaucracy, so that the negative impacts of such bureaucratic change are taken into consideration. In other words, while adopting market-centered bureaucratic reforms in the name of efficiency and productivity, it is necessary to ensure that the basic identity, commitment, and legitimacy of public bureaucracy are not sacrificed.

In conclusion, the process of bureaucratic change in Southeast Asia should not be based on the imitation of promarket administrative reforms adopted in advanced industrial nations, it should not be influenced by international agencies advocating such reforms, and it should not be guided by the prevailing global fetish for market-centered policies. In pursuing bureaucratic modernization, Southeast Asian countries should depend more on the realistic assessment of their own indigenous contexts, societal needs, and citizens’ expectations, although they should not totally discount the lessons of administrative changes in other countries. With regard to the contemporary market-oriented bureaucratic reforms in Southeast Asian countries, it is imperative that the decisions are guided by a rational analysis and critical scrutiny of both the favorable and adverse implications of such promarket reforms for the identity and legitimacy of public bureaucracy, for the morale and motivation of public employees, and for the gains and losses of various sections of the population. In planning and designing bureaucratic change in these countries, the policy makers need to recognize the basic distinction between the public and private sectors in terms of objectives, roles, structures, and norms; conduct a critical scrutiny of the economic, social, and administrative costs and benefits of bureaucratic transition; and identify the major gainers and losers, and redress the concerns of those who become worse off, from such bureaucratic change.

1 With regard to the recent public sector reforms in Southeast Asia, it has been pointed out that “The most drastic policy approach has been the integration of the private sector into the mainstream national development. The roles and contribution of the private sector have been increased. . . [emphasis original]” (Salleh, 1996:20).

2 In the business sector, the notion of “customer” has changed–it has increasingly become more individualistic. As Hammer and Champy (1993:18) mention, “There is no longer any such notion as the customer; there is only this customer, the one with whom a seller is dealing at the moment and who has the capacity to indulge his or her own personal tastes.” This individualistic view of customer is quite incompatible with the collective nature of public bureaucracy that cannot discriminate individual citizens based on their diverse tastes often determined by their financial capacities. Public bureaucracy cannot afford to satisfy the luxurious tastes of affluent customers while ignoring the basic needs of poor citizens.

3 In the U.S., for instance, during the promarket reform period 1978-94, the public trust in government institutions decreased from 34 to 20 percent, and the public distrust increased from 58 to 80 percent (Gordon, 1992; Hastings and Hastings, 1996). In the U.K., between 1979 and 1994, the percentage of people satisfied with the way government was running the country declined from 35 to 12 percent, whereas the number of people dissatisfied with it increased from 54 to 81.7 percent (see Hastings and Hastings, 1981, 1996).

4 For instance, the objective of public bureaucracy is not only to enhance economic growth and productivity but also to ensure the overall development and well-being of all citizens; its role is not only to take a passive role and facilitate market forces but also to undertake active measures to address crucial socioeconomic problems, including those created by the market forces themselves; its structure is not only a matter of managerial autonomy but also a question of how to maintain its accountability to the people and their representatives; its norms include not only efficiency, productivity, and cost-effectiveness but also other principles such as representation, fairness, and justice; and its beneficiaries encompass not only the customers who can pay for goods and services but also the underprivileged people who cannot pay and (thus) may not fall under the definition of customers (Haque, 1996).

5 Thailand has been characterized by the dominance of “bureaucratic polity” in which the primary role is played by the bureaucratic elites rather than political leaders (see Bowornwathana, 1997). This bureaucratic dominance often poses a serious challenge to the implementation of bureaucratic reforms in developing countries (Haque, 1997). In Thailand, bureaucratic reforms may also be jeopardized due to the fact that there are differences between politicians and bureaucrats in terms of their reform preferences: often bureaucrats are not in favor of the politicians’ reform proposals for enhancing bureaucratic transparency, streamlining the size of bureaucracy, and privatizing the public sector (Bowomwathana, 1997).


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Copyright Dr. George Kourvetaris Summer 1998

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